What would lead a person to become a professional lute player today? In the case of Paul O’Dette of the Eastman School of Music, it was, strangely, the desire to become a better rock guitarist.
O’Dette has been in Bowling Green recently preparing students in the College of Musical Arts for the upcoming production of “La Virtù de’ Strali d’Amore,” the second Cavalli opera collaborative production of BGSU and Eastman. (In 2005, O’Dette and the Eastman early music ensemble collaborated on “Gli Amore di Dafne and di Apollo.”) In a talk with Monitor, he discussed his own musical journey and his passion for 17th-century opera.
O’Dette was born into a musical family in Washington, D.C., where he studied piano and violin until, after a move to Columbus, he was so put off by his new violin teacher that he abandoned classical music and took up electric guitar. “I was in a rock band and that’s all I wanted to do,” he said. “Then a friend of our family who was a madrigal singer came to visit and suggested I study classical guitar to improve my technique. I agreed because I wanted to be the best electric guitar player,” he said, laughing. “My classical teacher had me play Renaissance lute pieces that had been transcribed for guitar. I liked them so much that I wanted to listen to them on the lute.
“I got some Julian Bream (perhaps the leading classical guitar and lute virtuoso of the 20th century) albums, and it was love at first chord. The sound went immediately into my soul, and I felt I had to play that instrument. But first I had to find a lute, and this was central Ohio in 1970.”
Serendipitously, his guitar teacher actually had a lute and had given up on learning it because the strings were so high above the fret board that he found it impossible to play. He sold the lute and his music library to O’Dette.
Unencumbered by preconceptions of what medieval instruments were like or any inhibiting reverence for the instrument, the teenager promptly had the action lowered to make the lute more playable—and the rest, as they say, is history.
His path thus diverged Sting’s, who after a long and successful career as a rock musician has discovered the lute and is playing the works of John Dowland (1563-1626). “I’m grateful to him,” O’Dette said. “It’s fantastic to have a big, major pop star bringing the lute to an audience far bigger than our little world ever could.” O’Dette said he has been talking to Sting about doing songs from the middle of the 17th century.
A vast, unexplored world of music
O’Dette believes there is a trove of wonderful music that has gone largely unexplored, in 17th-century operas such as Cavalli’s. “There are tens of thousands of operas out there that haven’t been performed in years,” he said. “People mistakenly believe that the chaff has been separated from the wheat when it comes to early compositions, and that the reason they aren’t done is that they aren’t as good as the ones we’re all familiar with. That simply isn’t true.”
Instead, he said, their obscurity has resulted from trends in musical scholarship and a misunderstanding of their musical style and aesthetic. They also had the bad fortune to have been dismissed by influential music writer Henry Pruniere in the 1920s, which discouraged further research into them, O’Dette said.
“People thought because they weren’t Monteverdi and they weren’t yet Handel that they had no merit. But it’s often in those transitional periods that you find the most exciting music. It’s so cutting edge and so avant-garde and experimental.
“This opera (‘La Virtù’) came just four years after the first public opera house opened, in Venice. Before that, opera was performed at court for the aristocratic, erudite class,” O’Dette explained. “The new, public performances had to try to bridge the aristocratic and the public tastes. It had to have enough references to flatter the intelligentsia’s taste and knowledge but also incorporate mass appeal like the Commedia dell’ arte. That’s what makes it so attractive and so layered.”
Paul O’Dette rehearses with students
Rehearsing the opera at BGSU has been satisfying in the ways it has validated the internal integrity and merit of the opera, agreed O’Dette and Dr. Ronald Shields, chair of the theatre and film department and director of the production. “It’s great to see how it really hangs together—how the narrative holds up and the beauty of the music is so strong,” Shields said.
“It’s a beautiful piece of musical theatre, with an immediate appeal to anyone, whether they’ve heard 17th-century music or not,” O’Dette said. “It’s a compelling story and the music is varied. It’s like a great wine—people who are not sophisticated will enjoy it, and those who are more knowledgeable will find more to appreciate about it.
“This is an exciting period of rediscovery,” O’Dette said. “We’re learning how to perform this music.”
It has been a challenge to teach the students and other performers in the opera to sing in Italian and to give the proper inflection to the lyrics so they make sense, O‘Dette said. “The skill set is varied. We’ve focused on the interpretation of the words. With Cavalli, the interesting words always fall on strong notes and chords, so that concepts of love, hate, anger are emphasized. It’s going amazingly well.”
“La Virtù de’ Strali d’Amore” will be performed at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 and 3 in Kobacker Hall, Moore Musical Arts Center. For more information, call the box office at 2-8171.